PH Coast Guard ‘building evidence’ vs Hong Kong ship crew

JC Gotinga
Without any trace of the 14 Filipino crew of Liberty 5, the search for survivors becomes a search for bodies, but Philippine Coast Guard chief George Ursabia Jr says he is still hoping for a miracle

CARGO SHIP. The Hong Kong-flagged M/V Vienna Wood. Photo from the Philippine Coast Guard

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) is building up evidence against the crew of the Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship Vienna Wood, after a probe revealed that they did not try to rescue the mariners of Philippine fishing boat Liberty 5 when the bulk carrier collided with the boat in waters off Occidental Mindoro in late June.

“Based on our investigation, they did not initiate lowering a rescue boat. A factor would be the huge waves. They prioritized the proper navigation of their vessel because other small vessels came to the incident area,” PCG commandant Vice Admiral George Ursabia Jr said in a media interview on Friday, July 3.

The Vienna Wood tried to veer a safe distance away from 7 other vessels that came to the Liberty 5’s rescue after the collision, Ursabia earlier said. The 31,540-ton bulk carrier risked smashing into the smaller vessels if it had stayed near them.

This move by the Vienna Wood rules out a hit-and-run – the ship did stay put, Ursabia said. However, maritime law required them to actively attempt to save the 14 people on the Liberty 5.

The Vienna Wood’s safety equipment were working properly, including its two radar antennae, he added.

“Actually, na-detect nila sa radar ‘yung Liberty 5 at isa pang fishing vessel. Kaso lang, noong nagmamaniobra na sila pakaliwa para maiwasan ‘yung Liberty 5, huli na, kaya nagka-collision,” Ursabia said.

(Actually, their radar detected the Liberty 5 and another vessel. However, when they maneuvered leftwards to avoid the Liberty 5, it was too late, so they collided.)

Unlike vehicles on land, vessels are trickier to maneuver because they glide on the water, he added.

The PCG’s lawyers have wrapped up investigating the Vienna Wood’s crew and are now taking the sworn statements from the mariners and fishermen of the 7 boats that had tried to aid the Liberty 5.

“We are now building up pieces of evidence to file criminal charges against Vienna Wood,” Ursabia said.

The Coast Guard chief earlier said that although the collision was likely an accident, the Vienna Wood crew may face reckless imprudence or even homicide charges.

Still no survivors

Meanwhile, the PCG, the Philippine Air Force, the Philippine National Police Maritime Group, and local governments in Occidental Mindoro have kept up the search for the 11 crew and 3 passengers of the Liberty 5. The passengers, according to boat owner Irma Fishing and Trading, were also the company’s employees.

But as the search entered its fifth full day, it could no longer be characterized as a rescue but a retrieval effort, Ursabia said, because the chances of finding survivors are now slim.

This means searchers now expect to find bodies instead of survivors.

“Usually, after 3 full days of search-and-rescue operations, if we still don’t find survivors, we shift to search-and-retrieval,” the PCG chief said.

“But we’re not giving up hope. Miracle is reality. There’s still a possibility they’re still alive,” he added.

On Thursday, PCG spokesperson Commodore Armando Balilo said the Liberty 5 crew and passengers might have been trapped when the vessel capsized. He worried that the vessel could have already sunk to the bottom of the 2,000-meter deep waters of the collision site. Technical divers can only go 100 meters deep.

The PCG and PCG auxiliary will extend “a little financial help” to the families of the missing persons, Ursabia said. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources also said it would give the families aid, including a sack of rice each, and motorized fiber glass boats.

What happened?

The Vienna Wood collided with the Liberty 5 in the waters off Occidental Mindoro at around 10:20 pm on Saturday night, June 27, with rough seas, poor visibility, and heavy rains brought about by the southwest monsoon, Ursabia told reporters on Tuesday, June 30.

The PCG command center received a distress call from the Vienna Wood at 1:46 am on Sunday, June 28 – over 3 hours after the impact.

The PCG in Batangas sent out a boat to run an initial search-and-rescue effort at 5:30 am. Divers first came to the scene on Sunday afternoon, and then the search had to be called off at nightfall.

The next day, Monday, the PCG launched full seaborne and aerial searches of the waters off Occidental Mindoro. The effort has gone on since, pausing every night.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque on Monday, June 29, said the incident was a mere “banggaan” or accident. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said the incident must not be politicized.

The Chinese embassy in Manila, in a statement, said it was “shocked” by the incident, and opposed its “politicization.” Hong Kong, the Vienna Wood’s base, is a special administrative region of China.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, in a virtual forum of the National Defense College of the Philippines, mentioned the incident among instances of “harassment” of Filipinos by Chinese vessels in Philippine waters.

The Liberty 5’s fate bore similarities to the fishing boat Gem-Ver, which was rammed by a Chinese militia vessel in the West Philippine Sea in June 2019. Its 22 Filipino crew survived the incident.

Because the collision between the Vienna Wood and the Liberty 5 happened in Philippine internal waters, the matter falls under complete Philippine jurisdiction. –

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.